Car reviews - Holden - Astra - City 3-dr hatch
Strong engine, vehicle dynamics, noise levels, Euro chic
Room for improvement
No rear headrests, half-baked split-fold, equipment level
27 Aug 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
THAT Holden now dominates the Australian car industry like never before has a lot to do with Astra.
A product of GM's main European arm, Opel, the small car range has become a huge success for The General, setting it free once and for all from its burdensome "Commodore company" alias and snapping other manufacturers out of a discounting frame of mind.
Rather than compete on price alone when the current model arrived back in '98, Holden took an added-value approach that asked customers to shell out a few thousand dollars more for rewards such as Continental flair and strong performance.
It was a move designed to protect dealer margins, resale value and Holden's bottom line. And against the odds, the public responded.
The figures are telling. Astra sales have risen from 4500 in '97 to nigh on 18,500 in 2000, while this year, with the new three-door and a forthcoming SRi hatch and cabriolet bolstering the range, the total will close in on 30,000.
"It's the cohesiveness and the comprehensiveness of a brand with a wide portfolio which gives you the success," says Holden chief Peter Hanenberger, the architect of the small-car revival and himself a former Opel exec.
"And if this four-cylinder market grows like we think it will, we should be one day even taking one of these platforms, tooling it up and then doing our own."
The three-door model drops the Astra entry level to below $19,000, expanding its catchment area and continuing to trade on quality and comfort rather than headline-grabbing features.
Inducements such as alloy wheels, a compact disc player, air-conditioning, power windows, cruise control, ABS brakes, power mirrors, roadside assistance or free scheduled servicing are either optional or not available.
But there are good reasons to consider the three-door, not least of which is an outstanding combination of strong engine performance, solid handling and excellent refinement.
Like its sedan and five-door stablemates, the three-door is powered by a 1.8-litre engine which produces 90kW of power at 5600rpm and 90Nm of torque at 5600rpm.
Though the optional four-speed automatic transmission tested here takes the edge off the 1.8 and sips more fuel than its manual counterpart, the core properties remain - it's a smooth, strong, quiet and economical engine that has excellent mid-range pulling power and plenty of spirit up around the top end.
The smooth-shifting auto tends to hunt between gears when the road starts twisting like a corkscrew, even with fourth gear benched via the sports mode. Yet in virtually all other driving conditions - around town, on open stretches - it will shift at the appropriate moment without fuss.
It also selects neutral when the brake pedal is applied at idle, a feature Holden claims reduces fuel consumption by up to three per cent.
For on-road manners, it doesn't come better than this in the sub-$20,000 class and, indeed, the three-door would hold its own against more fancied models costing thousands more.
The car refuses to get flustered. Across all manner of road surfaces, the Astra has a supple, stable ride and handling characteristics that are safe, predictable and sporting.
Levels of roadholding and grip are excellent. The steering is accurate and well weighted. The four-wheel disc brakes are progressive and effective. And topping it off, exterior noise - in all its manifestations - is never an issue.
The cockpit is dark and sombre, though the large doors feature an enormous cloth insert that matches the seat trim and soaks up more than two-thirds of the available door space.
A small point, perhaps. But niceties like this give the hatch an upmarket feel and, for many prospective buyers, more appeal than better-equipped rivals.
Let us mention the soft materials used across the dashboard, bottle holders moulded into the door pockets, high-grade radio reception, powerful air-conditioning, a pollen filter, well-placed and oversized temperature controls, headlight angle adjustment, overhead grabhandles neatly recessed into the headlining and a useful display showing time, date, outside temperature and audio settings.
The front thrones are firm and supportive and the driving position never in question with good seat travel, an effective pump-action height adjustment lever and a steering wheel that adjusts for both reach and height.
The three-spoke tiller is nice to hold, too, though the big reach back to the seatbelt is a reoccurring inconvenience.
Access to the rear compartment is assisted with a tilt/slide function on both front seats (which returns to its original position), and once there, acceptable room, comfort and storage amenities are provided for two or three children.
The high windowsills can be stifling, and more whittling out of the front seatbacks will be required if widespread adult comfort is to be achieved, while the lack of rear head restraints is a major oversight that dampens the good impression created by dual front airbags and the full complement of three-point seatbelts.
(While we're at it, variable intermittent wipers and a lockable glovebox should also have made the grade.)
Cargo space is generous for this class and further enhanced with the 60/40 split-fold rear seat and a skiport. In addition, the rear seatbase folds forward as one piece but it does not leave a flat cargo floor and lacks protective trim on its underside for protection from a load.
At least until the cabriolet and the HSV-enhanced coupe versions arrive, the Astra three-door has slotted in as the best-looking model in the range.
And for less than $19,000 at its launch, it could be hard to go past without a second look.
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